Okay, forget everything I’ve ever mentioned in any of my previous posts about driving or traffic in other countries. Nepal is hands down the most terrifying country when it comes to being a passenger.
We arrived in Kathmandu and were picked up by Guarav, a friend of a friend who had graciously offered to host us in his home. Although we had never met Guarav before or his “brother”, Anil, (later we learned they are not related but are from the same village), the two made us feel as at home as we possibly could considering the circumstances. Keep in mind tourists usually insulate themselves in Thamel, an enclave in Kathmandu providing travelers with access to Western necessities.
Let me explain the “circumstances” of how challenging it was to feel any semblance of home while living like a local in Nepal.
First of all, this….
If you’re confused by what you’re seeing this is called a toilet in Nepal, or as I say, a squatty potty. I took one look at it during the home tour and was speechless and too embarrassed to ask how to use it. The only orientation I received from Guarav on the amenities was an explanation of the bucket which of course is the manual flush! I did what any reasonable personal would do in this situation and resorted to Google to acquaint myself. Learning how to use the squatty potty was one of the many obstacles I faced while surviving Nepal. You got that right, there was little thriving on my end.
We visited Nepal in early December, the start of winter. The temperature dropped into the low 40s at night which wouldn’t have been worth mentioning except the home didn’t have heating. This is not uncommon in Nepal, as even the more affluent at best had space heaters. I felt frozen at night and couldn’t seem to do anything to get warm, despite layering with everything in my suitcase. If you can imagine your worst night camping where you were cold and couldn’t wait for the sun to come up, that was sleeping in this house.
Nepal is the roughest and hardest travel I have done to date. Everything is difficult from the minute you step foot outside (wow, I sound really dramatic). Cows are roaming the streets (it’s a Hindu country and like India cows are holy), people are honking incessantly, roads are really just dirt paths, and the pollution is oppressive. All my senses were overstimulated and in overdrive. Before stepping outside of our home I felt like I had to brace myself for the chaos that awaited outside. The country is not exactly UNDERdeveloped in my opinion, it’s not really developed at all. I’m making it seem like I had a miserable time but my goal is to convey how different the Nepalese are living compared to Westerners. S and I both agree our time in Nepal was one of the most memorable of our travels because it wasn’t easy, and provided us with exposure to things we had truly never encountered.
I should mention most travelers have an entirely different experience in Nepal when they stay in Thamel because they have regular toilets and amenities. By staying with locals and living like a local we weren’t insulated from the unpleasantries and I feel like I grew a lot as a person because I stuck it out even though I rang the “get me out of here” bell at a minimum once a day.
Now that I have aired out all my emotions, here is what it all looked like.
Pashupatinath Temple is a Hindu temple where open air cremations are performed in front of a public audience. Guarav dropped us off at the temple and briefed us on what we were witnessing. The Bagmati River runs through the temple, and is a sacred body of water for the Hindus in Nepal. Families prepare the dead bodies along the steps of the river and follow a set of rituals including disposing of the person’s jewelry into the Bagmati and dipping the feet into the water. After the preparations are completed the body is carried a short distance further down the river for the cremation along the bank.
Watching the rituals and cremations take place felt uncomfortable because I did not feel like I should be able to witness the intimacy of it. Coming from the perspective of a Westerner I felt like a rude member of the peanut gallery but Guarav reassured us it was normal, so normal that the youth come to Pashupatinath Temple in the evenings as a hang out spot. There was even a cafe overlooking the cremation sites! Personally I did not want to linger in the area for very long and continue inhaling the smoke from the cremations. While this was not necessarily the experience I was looking for, it reinforced how travel can transport you into otherwise unreachable worlds.
Boudhanath is a Buddhist temple, or stupa, representing the other main religion in Nepal. Looking at the stupa while the sunset illuminated it was very special. It is important when walking around the temple to keep the deity on your right-hand side at all times out of respect. We learned about the behaviors occurring at the stupa from Guarav, and the major theme was performing rituals to receive good luck in life.
Strange to see my maiden name all over Lalitpur where Patan Square is located. It’s collection of temples and has a former palace.
Another Buddhist temple, or stupa, was Swayambhu, distinguished by its hilltop location offering a view of Kathmandu. The monkeys were particularly aggressive and clever here, stealing anything and everything. It was funny watching them run off with a bag of cotton candy they had stolen from an unsuspecting child.
Two words: dal bhat. We ate dal bhat every day, three times a day. Dal bhat is rice and lentils, both made in pressure cookers on the stovetop and seasoned with a few spices: turmeric, salt and cumin. Luckily, we enjoyed the taste and simplicity of it and didn’t mind eating it multiples times a day. It’s a very cheap and efficient meal since rice and lentils combined form a complete protein. In the photo below you’ll see a small dish with green liquid and that is the lentils to pour over the rice.
My favorite treat in Nepal was the milk tea, which is black tea boiled with milk and sugar. It was the yummiest thing to sip in the cold winter. The tea pictured below was served at a restaurant, and the purple water bottle is the communal water for customers. I was shocked the first time I observed Guarav “waterfall” from the bottle into his mouth. They do this to avoid germ sharing and use the honor system assuming customers do not touch the bottle to their lips.
We primarily got around Kathmandu by riding in the car with Guarav but we also braved a few bus rides.
The most memorable bus ride of my life which almost didn’t happen in the first place, was taking a public bus with the locals to a different part of town in Kathmandu. Let me set the stage for you… We walked to the bus stop along a busy road listening to the ear piecing sounds of horns, inhaling loads of dust and pollution, trying our best to not get run over by mopeds. As we approached the “bus stop” which really is just an unofficial area to catch one of the many unmarked buses, I see a goat lying dead on the sidewalk, a woman getting off a bus clutching her baby and puking on the street, and another woman vomiting into a bag while sitting in a car. Every bus passing by was full to the brim with passengers, some even hanging on to the outside because there was no room inside. I was not feeling particularly motivated to ride the bus at this point. Despite my better judgment, I got on and lived to tell about it but was too horrified to snap a photo of the scene.
Our hosts were the best, and we felt utterly spoiled by them. Anil is not Guarav’s actual brother, which we had to clarify. Although they refer to one another as brothers, we learned this is because they came from the same village. In their village everyone refers to peers as brothers or sisters, and elders are aunts and uncles. We also met Guarav’s girlfriend, Anima, and her family. All of the interactions we had with locals made our trip extra meaningful.
We learned about Nepal’s caste system which I did not realize they had…Nepal and India are more culturally similar than I anticipated. I found it very interesting that Guarav and his girlfriend are of different castes, and they have a sort of forbidden love they are navigating through. We recently learned Anima’s parents are approving the two to marry even though Anima is from a higher caste. Caste determines and impacts all aspects of their lives, including something as simple as the type of meat they eat. For example, Guarav eats almost all types of meat as a member of the Limbu caste, while Anima in the Brahmin caste only eats chicken and goat. Being uneducated on the system I thought Guarav would have felt insecure about the caste he was from since it was not the highest. Instead, he had a very endearing sense of pride from being Limbu.
A memory that will make me laugh for a long time is when the boys gave us warm water from a thermos to drink when we first arrived in Nepal. They said our bodies were not yet used to the cold weather so it was healthiest to drink warm water as to not shock our bodies and ultimately end up sick. We sipped our warm water while they drank cold water (they were acclimated so it was safe for them) and kept our giggles to ourselves.
We will never forget the kindness they bestowed upon us. They had what most of us would deem to be nothing yet they gave us everything. I write this and still feel emotional considering the character of those wonderful people. They gave me a newfound appreciation for the privileges I so easily take for granted.
I’ll leave you with an image comparison. S trying to blend in with the locals.
Are you wondering if we trekked? Sort of but I’ll save that story for next time.